Should "Mr. Wendal" be cancelled? [January 24, 1993]
Plus: Dinosaur Jr, Sugar, Apache Indian, and Elvis Costello
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋
It’s January 24, 1993 again
📰 John Major is suing The New Statesman over allegations that he had an affair with a caterer (nobody yet knew about his affair with Edwina Currie. 📽️ Keanu Reeves attempts a British accent in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. 📺 Jasper Carrot finally gets a sitcom in BBC’s The Detectives, which will run for five seasons.
🎶 “I Will Always Love You” is enjoying its ninth week at Number One, so instead let’s talk about…
This week’s Number 9: “Mr. Wendal”—Arrested Development
Last week, I took my daughter to Dublin to see her favourite comedian, John Mulaney. It was a great show, and it was nice to be back in a city I haven’t visited in a while.
I used to live in Dublin. I spent eighteen intense months there during that hazy, post-college part of my early 20s. Wandering those streets again brought back some vivid memories, and my lucky daughter got to listen to a series of long, rambling anecdotes.
(Poor girl. Imagine if this newsletter were a podcast, and imagine if that podcast lived in your house.)
Obviously, I only told her the PG-13 stuff. My more questionable adventures were heavily redacted. For example, we went to the McDonald’s on Grafton Street later that evening, a place that is essentially a flophouse that sells McNuggets.
As we sat there, surrounded by jittery junkies and passed-out drunks, I chose not to say what I was thinking, which was, “wow, this reminds me of the time I was homeless.”
No clothes, no money, no plate
Okay, homeless is an exaggeration.
After a heavy night on the Babycham, I arrived home at around 3am, only to discover that I had lost everything: my keys, my phone and my wallet, all gone. My brain was on 1% battery, so I had no idea what to do.
And so, I decided to just walk around Dublin until I figured something out.
By 5.30am, I was freezing, exhausted and starving. Everything was shut, and would remain so until McDonald’s on Grafton Street opened at 6. I had just about enough cash for a coffee, so I moseyed over there at around 5.45am, and found a large group of homeless people queuing outside.
I assumed they had the same idea as me: buy a coffee and sit there until sunrise.
That is not what happened.
When the doors opened, these guys all marched in and began grabbing handfuls of the things McDonald’s provides for free: napkins, salt, ketchup, straws, and so on. Once their pockets were full, they walked out. This was a normal event, judging by the staff’s lack of reaction.
I bought a coffee and asked the guy behind the counter what was going on. Like, why take ketchup? Why queue for ketchup at 6am? What are they putting it on?
The guy shrugged and said, “they’re homeless”, as if that in itself was an explanation.
I got my keys back at around lunchtime. After 10 hard hours of living on the streets, I was no longer homeless.
Most of y'all come out confused
One reason for not telling my kid this story is that she’s part of the woke TikTok generation, and she would probably scold me for saying “homeless” instead of “unhoused” or “people experiencing homelessness”.
Woke TikTokers are always challenging divisiveness, anything that creates an Us and Them dynamic. The term “homeless”, they argue, implies that homelessness is a kind of cultural identity, like being a raver or a Jehovah’s Witness. And that creates a divide between “homeless people” and “normal people”. Between Us and Them
Which is rough on Gen X liberals, because our version of political correctness was full of Us and Them ideas. Didn’t we all grow up listening to Bono encouraging us to “thank god it’s them instead of you” ?
The 80s and 90s are filled with Important Songs About The Issues, and few have aged well. Phil Collins is the undisputed champ here, having rocked 1989 with his monster hit “Another Day In Paradise”:
She calls out to the man on the street
He can see she's been crying
She's got blisters on the soles of her feet
She can't walk but she's trying
Oh, think twice,
'cause it's another day for you and me in paradise
Is this the best way to discuss homelessness?
Let’s play a quick game: close your eyes and think about your least favourite feature. Maybe you have weird knees and you’re really self-conscious about them.
Now, imagine Phil Collins writes a song to raise awareness about people with weird knees. This sounds noble enough, right? He’s jumping in and trying to help your marginalised community.
Then you hear the song, and the chorus goes:
He’s got weird, digusting knees
Can’t wear shorts, only dunagrees
But remember, you should never tease
People less leggy than you and me
Maybe the intent is noble, but the approach creates this split between Us (people with nice legs) and Them (knock-kneed freaks like you.) The “you and me” line shows that he’s directly addressing the normal knee demographic. He’s talking about you, shouting over your head as if you didn’t exist.
Phil’s song is a masterpiece compared to “If That Were Me”, a post-Spice Girls solo track from Mel C. Already, the title is going Full Bono, but the lyrics are even worse. Mel compares her popstar life to that of an unhoused person, making observations like:
I couldn’t live without my phone
But you don’t even have a home
In 2011, the comedian known as Kunt & The Gang did a spot-on parody of this type of writing in his track, “My Homeless Friend”. Most of the lyrics are too obscene to reprint, but he channels Mel C in lines like:
If I fancy some soup
I just open a can
You get yours off a Christian
In a converted Transit van
But we don't hear him talk
So, how does “Mr. Wendal” fare in comparison?
Positives first: the song itself is a bop and contains some lines that go hard, like:
Mr. Wendal, a man,
A human in flesh, but not by law
Good stuff! We’re getting a sense of this person’s humanity, and we’re addressing the power structures behind his social exclusion.
Sadly, the rest of the song goes a bit Phil Collins:
Two dollars means a snack for me
But it means a big deal to you
Not to mention the “is this still Kunt And The Gang?” vibe of:
Uncivilized, we call him
But I just saw him
Eat off the food we waste
The bit I really struggle with is the way the song appears to celebrate its main character:
Mr. Wendal has freedom
A freedom that you and I think is dumb…
Mr. Wendal has tried to warn us about our ways
But we don't hear him talk
Suggesting a homeless person has something to say? Very cool. This is exactly what the Wokerati want: more inclusion for marginalised voices.
Except… Arrested Development don’t really give him a voice. Mr. Wendal ends up a kind of caricature, a salt-of-the-earth free spirit (who is maybe also a tiny bit magic?) You can imagine Mr. Wendal sitting at the side of the road, smiling and offering pearls of homespun wisdom to passing white children.
But you never get the sense of Mr. Wendal as a real person, someone just like you. Arrested Development complain that we don’t hear him talk, but they never tell us what he has to say. It ends another Us and Them song, a conversation that excludes Mr. Wendal himself.
In conclusion, I actually agree with the Woke Gen Z TikTokkers about using language like “people experiencing homelessness”. Will that magically put a roof over anyone’s head? Of course not. But it might encourage us to think of homelessness, not as an identity, but as a situation that can happen to anyone—and that society can tackle with better resources and planning.
I never found out why those guys were taking ketchup from McDonald’s at 6am. Some people have offered theories; others have shrugged like the guy behind the counter and said, “they’re homeless”, as if they’re a secret society with weird ketchup-based rituals.
And actually, the question has always had an obvious answer.
What were they doing with all that ketchup?
Surviving with the available resources. Same as everyone else.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 3 (↑ from 5): “The Love I Lost”—West End feat. Sybil
Sybil is cousins with Maxine from En Vogue, which means that she’s never the most famous person at Thanksgiving dinner, despite the success of this upbeat Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes cover. However, she did name her debut album Sybilization, and we must respect anyone with such a strong pun game.
West End is a pseudonym for Eddie Gordon, who was a very successful record plugger in the 90s and helped in the chart success of Eternal, Whigfield, Dina Carroll, Bobby Brown, Mary J Blige and many others. He also founded and produced BBC’s Essential Mix show, which played a big part in the mainstreaming of dance music.
Number 20 (New Entry): “Start Choppin’”—Dinosaur Jr.
Dinosaur Jr in the singles charts! Who would have thought? Sadly, they were not invited onto Top Of The Pops to celebrate this week, which means J Mascis didn’t get to hang out with East 17, Dina Carroll and Lulu. Ah well.
“Start Choppin” is the lead single from Where You Been, which we’ll discuss in a few weeks.
Number 29 (↓ from 16): “Arranged Marriage”—Apache Indian
1993 is a big year for reggae, with chart success for Shabba Ranks, Chaka Demus & Pliers, Shaggy and… Ace Of Base.
But first blood goes Steven Kapur, better known as Apache Indian. His album No Reservations is one of this year’s more exciting LPs, offering a thrilling mish-mash of reggae, bhangra, and techno.
“Arranged Marriage”, the first single from No Reservations, earned Kapur an invitation to Top Of The Pops (eat your heart out J Mascis). I’m told this was a big moment for British-Asian teenagers, who had never seen a member of their own community looking so cool on telly.
Number 30 (New Entry): “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”—Sugar
Bob Mould says that he wrote this in 30 minutes. He also says it’s a rip-off of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, so maybe he’s just trying to downplay the fact that he wrote a very good pop song.
A great pop song, in fact, which launched an entire genre of jangly 90s alt-pop, although none of them were as good as “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”.
Number 37 (New Entry): “Revival”—Martine Girault
I bought a compilation CD for £2 in 2002 called something like Music For Smoking Weed To. It was mostly terrible (like, the first track was Afroman) but this classy number got played to death. Gorgeously lush bit of neo-jazz with hints of trip-hop. A delight.
Album of the Week
The Juliet Letters—Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet
Brokenhearted people will do anything for a little relief. Every year, Juliet Capulet receives over 5,000 letters from around the world, all from people begging for her advice, understanding, and possible intervention.
Yes, that’s Juliet Capulet of Romeo & Juliet fame. You know, the fictional teenager who was so bad at relationships that she died within a week of her first kiss. Despite her lack of qualifications (and, again, the fact that she’s fictional), Ms Capulet still gets around 100 letters per week.
And the letter-writers usually get a reply. A volunteer group called the Club di Giulietta answer on Juliet’s behalf, offering guidance where they can. It’s a cute tradition that inspired a book called Letters To Juliet, which later became a very breezy romcom with Amanda Seyfried.
The story also inspired Elvis Costello to co-create this record, in which he imagines the kind of letters that Juliet Capulet might receive: rants from jealous lovers (“For Other Eyes”), meandering philosophers (“This Sad Burlesque”), and even some junk mail (“This Offer Is Unrepeatable”). The strongest songs here are those where Costello captures the sense of a living character, like the furious old matron of “I Almost Had A Weakness”:
Costello’s partners here are The Brodsky Quartet, immensely talented classical musicians with a rock’n’roll sensibility. They do a terrific job of not letting themselves get overshadowed by Elvis—in fact he’s often a passenger in their thundering arrangements, and some of the letters are entirely instrumental.
That said, some of the best tracks sound like typical Elvis Costello songs, only played on strings instead of guitars:
The Juliet Letters is intended as a performance piece, and it’s still regularly staged by classical groups today (The Flemish Radio Choir and the Helikon Quartet will be playing it in Belgium later this year.) There’s no story structure here, but there is a kind of thematic progression, climaxing with with three songs about the only problem Juliet Capulet might know something about: what happens to love after death?
“The Birds Will Still Be Singing” is the sweet, melancholy final answer to all questions:
The Juliet Letters is something of a curiosity, both for Elvis Costello fans and classical aficionados. Still, as a late-career experiment, this is really brave—and really good.
That’s it for this week…
…but you’ll find daily posts on Mastodon, Instagram and TikTok. If you enjoyed this, please share!
And subscribe if you haven’t already:
Great piece. Right on.
I used to get to listen to Sybil in high school, courtesy of my girlfriend. Lots of “Don’t Make Me Over” (also a cover). Not the worst artist she’d play in the car...